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Nadra Kareem Nittle

What Jeremy Linís NBA Rise Means for Race Relations

By February 19, 2012

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New York Knicks basketball player Jeremy Lin has only been in the headlines for a few weeks, but he's already at the center of various racial controversies. ESPN issued an apology after running a headline about Lin on its mobile sites Friday with the racial slur "chink." To boot, several questions have been raised about how to cover Lin's ethnic background. Is he Taiwanese American or Chinese American? Is the media only lavishing attention on Lin because he's Asian? Did the MSG Network cross the line by showing a sign of Lin's face superimposed on a fortune cookie with the caption: "The Knicks' good fortune?"

The answers to these questions vary, but each one proves thought provoking. Take the dispute over Lin's ethnicity. It has resulted in the public learning about how Taiwanese people differ from the Chinese ethnically. Many Americans, especially those who view Asians as a monolithic group, have never considered this matter. Moreover, the racial controversies ESPN and the MSG Network have become embroiled in related to Lin will no doubt prompt other media outlets to take a serious look at how they report on Asian Americans, a group largely overlooked by the mainstream press. Any television network would think twice before using a racial slur in connection to a black or Latino athlete and would hesitate to show a sign of a black athlete's face superimposed on an image of, say, watermelon. The Asian-American Lin deserves the same courtesy.

Of course, these incidents don't mark the first time Lin has been targeted on the court because of his race. Before "Lin-sanity" became all the rage, I blogged about Lin in February 2010 when he was still a senior basketball player at Harvard University. He'd recently given an NPR interview in which he discussed being heckled by racist spectators in the stands because he's Asian.

"In America, basketball is predominantly (seen as being) for black and white people," Lin told NPR. "I think in general Asian Americans are looked down on on the basketball court."

His quote contradicts boxer Floyd Mayweather's assertion that the news media has singled Lin out precisely because he's Asian. Honestly, I can't take anything Mayweather says seriously considering his history of using racial stereotypes to taunt boxing rival Manny Pacquiao. While Lin's race certainly factors into the current fascination with him, I highly doubt it's the sole reason for it. If Lin stank, the Knicks would not have gone on a winning streak with their star players out, and no one would have cared one iota about the team's sole player of Asian descent. Lin has become a media darling simply because he's an underdog who triumphed. Who knew that this benchwarmer had the ability to lead the Knicks to victory after victory? That's why he's started an international craze. The fact that he's a baller from an underrepresented racial group doesn't hurt, just as it didn't hurt the Williams sisters on the tennis court or Tiger Woods on the golf course.

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